Should the Pentagon be enlisted in the war against drugs?

Both houses of Congress clearly think so. The Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to require Navy vessels to track suspected drug boats in international waters and let Navy officers arrest suspected drug smugglers. Earlier, the House of Representatives approved an even tougher measure that would require the military to seal U.S. borders against drug traffickers.The new legislation is in line with recent recommendations from the White House Conference for a Drug-Free America, which included greater involvement of the military among a long list of suggestions for fighting drug smuggling and abuse.

Since lawmen are stopping only about 200 of the estimated 18,000 drug flights into the U.S. each year, it's understandable why more lawmakers and other officials are looking to the armed forces for help.

But the closer one looks at this seemingly simple and attractive suggestion, the more inadvisable it seems.

For openers, if servicemen and women are to be turned into narcotics agents, Congress would have to repeal an 1878 law that specifically bans the use of the military to enforce civilian laws within the United States. Under the new Senate bill, the Navy could make arrests only outside the U.S. Even so, the measure represents the erosion of an important restriction.

This law was put on the books to keep the U.S. from turning into another banana republic in which the government is run by some military junta and there's little, if any, difference between the military and the police. If Americans want to maintain their tradition of civilian control of the military, Washington had better go slow on tinkering with this law.

The 1878 law already has been amended once to let military planes and ships share information they gather with lawmen, including the Drug Enforcement Administration. That should be enough.

Why not amend the law even more to permit greater military participation in the war on drugs?

Because using the military to close U.S. borders to drug smuggling would cost at least $25 billion a year, according to the Pentagon.

Because soldiers are trained to shoot to kill, not to make arrests or read suspects their rights.

Because retraining military personnel and assigning them to the war on drugs could impair the military readiness and effectiveness of the armed forces.

No wonder the Pentagon and the White House are going along only reluctantly with suggestions that it play a bigger and more active part in fighting drugs. Indeed, how effective could the military be if it is forced to act against its better judgment?

In short, turning troops into narcotics agents could do more harm than good. There's still some hope for altering this move when the bills come before a Senate-House conference committee in an effort to harmonize the two differing measures, and again when Congress appropriates funds for the bills. Let's hope this ill-advised plan is eventually given a dishonorable discharge.